Combining traditional Japanese influences, French technique, and more than 20 years of cooking in the Midwest, James Beard Award-winning chef Takashi Yagihashi introduces American home cooks to essential Japanese comfort food with his simple yet sophisticated recipes. Emphasizing quick-to-the-table shortcuts, the use of fresh and dried packaged noodles, and kid-friendly dishes, Takashi explains noodle nuances and explores each style's distinct regional identity. An expert guide, Takashi recalls his youth in Japan and takes cooks on a discovery tour of the rich bounty of Japanese noodles, so readily accessible today. Takashi's exuberance for noodles ranging from Aje-Men to Zaru is sure to inspire home cooks to dive into bowl after soothing, refreshing bowl.
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Food lovers in Chicago got a delicious surprise when Takashi's, a delicious Japanese noodle eatery, opened in 2008. Now lovers of udon and ramen could congregate for the chewy noodles and delicate broths that are so good at sustaining one through the bitter winters that roll in off of Lake Michigan. The noodle bowls were exactly what was needed, even if they were pulled from a culture six thousand miles to the west.
The owner and namesake of Takashi's is Takashi Yagihashi, who was named one of America's 10 Best New Chefs by Food & Wine magazine in 2000. Takashi takes the comfort foods of his homeland and brings them to his American audience at several locations in the Chicago area. After his fame began to spread, he began work on a cookbook so that those farther afield could enjoy the same steamy goodness in the comfort of their own homes.
Japanese noodle dishes are the comfort food of that country, a go-to for harried office workers and tired housewives. The dishes are relatively simple to prepare, featuring fresh ingredients in basic combinations that yield rich flavors. Takashi's Noodles highlights many of the dishes served in his restaurants, from ramen to soba to udon and beyond.
The book itself is paperback, and the cover is more easily bent than a hardcover book, but it still manages to impress. The paper is thick, and the numerous photographs are bright and well-lit. The book itself is printed on matte paper, so there is less glare when trying to read the ingredient list under the bright lights of your kitchen. The print is dark inks on white pages, so it is much easier to read than many new cookbooks on the market.
Many of the recipes in the book call for the use of stocks which form the base of the noodle dishes. These stocks take up to several hours to cook, which may be a drawback to diners who would prefer a quick fix, but is necessary for the kind of deep, simple flavors Takashi regularly explores. Most ingredients are easily found in local grocery stores, although some items, like white soy sauce, may be more easily located online.
The ramen recipes are probably the easiest in the book, as they call for pre-made frozen ramen. As long as you have some chicken stock in the freezer, these dishes are doable on short notice. The mushroom ramen is especially delicious, with deep earthy flavors from the four different wild mushrooms called for in the recipe. The only drawback is the inclusion of fresh chrysanthemum leaves, which I was unable to locate. I still feel that this would have added another layer of interest and flavor to the dish, but even without, the noodles were warm and comforting.
The soba chapter opens with Takashi's recipe for homemade soba noodles, including several pictures of the folding and cutting process. However, if you're a bit anxious about trying out your noodle making skills, dried soba noodles are very easy to find, even at semi-rural grocery chains. Takashi gets a little more creative in this section, leaning more towards haute cuisine (celery root foam anyone?), but this is hardly surprising considering Takashi's French cuisine training. It's rather amazing that we quickly move to something as basic as Wakame Soba several pages later. The dish is the essence of simplicity, with a slightly salty broth and crunchy fresh pea pods.
The udon chapter was probably my favorite, as we start to get into denser, more filling noodles. The udon noodle can easily move from soup to salad to main dish, absorbing the flavors of the various sauces and stocks. The most tempting selection would have to be the Curry Udon: thick noodles, paper-thin beef, and spicy curry sauce. It's a perfect end to a long and stressful day. If you've only had Japanese curry over rice, this one is worth a try.
Takashi branches out into other cultures and other noodles later in the book, but the truest recipes appear to comprise the first several chapters. The famous braised pork belly recipe also makes an appearance, and for those in the know, this delicacy never leaves the menu at the Chicago restaurant. Overall, Takashi's Noodles is a beautiful and enchanting survey of traditional Japanese comfort food for an inquisitive American audience.
Recipe: Curry Udon
1½ tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cup thinly sliced yellow onion
1 cup peeled and thinly sliced salsify
1 teaspoon curry powder
6 cups Udon Broth (see below)
3 ounces medium-hot Japanese curry sauce mix
1¼ cups whole milk
12 ounces beef, sliced paper thin (ask your butcher to slice it for you)
1 pound dried udon noodles
2 scallions, both white and green parts, thinly sliced
8 mitsuba leaves, thinly sliced
Set a large sauté or wide-bottomed pan over high heat and add vegetable oil. When the oil is hot, about 30 seconds, add the onions and salsify. Cook for 1 minute, then decrease the heat to medium and cook, stirring often, until the onions are soft, approximately 45 seconds longer. Add the curry powder and continue cooking, stirring often, until it has been absorbed, about 30 seconds.
Pour the broth over the vegetables and increase the heat to high. Add the curry sauce mix and stir until dissolved, about 2 minutes. Stir in the milk and heat for 1 minute. Stir in the beef and cook over medium heat until the meat is cooked through, 2½ to 3 minutes.
Place a large pot of water over high heat and bring to a boil. Add the noodles and cook, following package instructions. Drain well. Divide the noodles among 4 bowls. Into each bowl pour one-fourth of the curry broth and the beef and garnish with the scallions and mitsuba leaves.
3 cups Dashi (see below)
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons Japanese soy sauce
½ cup mirin
Combine all the ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Decrease the heat and keep warm until ready to serve.
2 large pieces kombu, approximately 10 by 4 inches each, gently wiped with a damp towel
2 quarts plus 1 cup water
3 cups packed katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes)
Place kombu and water in a large stockpot and let it soak at room temperature for at least 20 minutes. You can soak longer, too, even overnight, which will allow the kombu to release more flavor. Bring to a boil over high heat. Remove the kombu and decrease the heat so the liquid is simmering. Add the katsuobushi and gently mix into the liquid; don't stir vigorously. Simmer for 10 minutes longer, then strain through a fine-mesh sieve.
Recipe courtesy "Takashi's Noodles," written by Takashi Yahihashi, published by Ten Speed Press, 2009.